Unalienable Rights

The Collect for Epiphany 5 caught my eye this morning.  Specifically, I was struck by the opening phrase, “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life.”  More to the point, it was the word liberty that really made me take notice.  I figured this Collect had been written by William White, first Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church and Chaplain to the Continental  Congress, but I was wrong.  Marion Hatchett, in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book tells me that this collect is brand new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  Coincidentally, the Collect was drafted by the Rev. Dr. Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr., who write The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary for the 1928 BCP.  It seems very meta to read Hatchett writing about prayers written by Shepherd.

The scriptural allusions in this prayer include Galatians 4:3-5 and Luke 4:16-21, among others.  In the NIV, the Galatians passage reads,

“When we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”

Luke 4:16-21, to which I gave reference in yesterday’s sermon, from the RSV of Shepherd’s era reads,

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I can’t read the word liberty without thinking of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  We all know by now that the authors of the Declaration didn’t really mean “all.”  They didn’t even mean “all men.”  They most likely meant all non-impoverished white men, but that’s not my point this morning.  My point, after a 468 word prologue is this, liberty is an unalienable right thanks to the never failing grace of God.  The Rev. Dr. Shepherd hits the nail on the head in this Collect for Epiphany 5 by not declaring our right to liberty, but by first asking for God to set us free from our bondage to sin.  We can’t know abundant life in God until we experience God’s abundant grace and God earnestly desires that we all might find the liberty that comes from a relationship with him.

Set us free, O God, set us free.

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